Having done the obligatory theropods, it’s time to take a second look at The Strange World of Dinosaurs, one of those dinosaur books where the author – John Ostrom – is considerably more well-known than the artist. Joseph Sibal’s pencil illustrations, printed in either red or green, are competent and lush and amusingly of their time, but also highly derivative of older artists, especially Burian and Parker. Let’s see if Ostrom and Sibals’ herbivores are as exciting and forward-thinking as their carnivores.
Of course, the most notable thing about this book is that it’s a comprehensive collection of pre-Renaissance tropes and ideas, written by the very person who would kick off the Dinosaur Renaissance. There are definite signs of Ostrom’s progressive mindset in the chapters on theropods. With the sauropods, not so much; it’s plodding swamp behemoths all around, although rarely do we find them snorkeling on the bottom of the lake like Burian’s Brachiosaurus. These Diplodocus are splashing around in the mud, even if they don’t at all use the water to support their weight; a strange, non-commital halfway point between aquatic and terrestrial. Their build is kind of Zallingerian. What I like about these is that Sibal made their heads look quite menacing; not at all the gentle giant puppy dog sauropods we’d see in contemporaneous and later work.
There’s more wading sauropods – the Brontosaurus is a straight-up Knight/Zallinger mimicking swamp snorkeler – but, more often than not, Sibal actually puts them on land. These Camarasaurus – with a Parker-inspired build but lacking the rough skin texture that made Parker’s sauropods look ahead of their time – are completely in the dry, though the tails are dragging behind them; the Dinosaur Renaissance isn’t happening here quite yet.
Meanwhile, Ostrom notes how sauropod tracks have been found with no trace of a dragging tail, and concludes that the animal must have been wading through shallow water which kept its tail afloat. It’s really extraordinary, the lengths of ad hoc rationalizations and cognitive dissonance the palaeontologists at the time had to go through in order to make the “aquatic sauropod” hypothesis make any kind of sense.
Here’s something I always enjoy. A collage of different hadrosaur heads, so you can compare them. This is maybe the only place in the book where a piece of artwork breaks the mold of “two dinosaurus standing around in a field”, so that makes it noteworthy. There’s some long-lost genus names among these, before they got folded into older genera, such as Anatosaurus (=Edmontosaurus*), Procheneosaurus (=Lambeosaurus) and Cheneosaurus (=Hypacrosaurus). Every hadrosaur that appears here gets its own private illustation, making the book a great showcase for the time for Cretaceous hadrosaur diversity. So let’s look at a few!
*I know some people contest that, don’t @ me.
Ha! Dinosaur otters! Look at them. I can sort of see the reasoning with sauropods, but how the hadrosaurus with their skinny hoof hands and their massive chewing batteries were ever thought to be aquatic is still a mystery to me. They really don’t look that much like ducks, guys. As for the artwork: it’s a valiant attempt at making the idea look somewhat believable… let down by the bungled, awkwardly angled itty bitty flipper feet. Hadrosaurs have big feet, why not commit to the bit and give them huge froggy flippers?
Tsintaosaurus has had a remarkable and occasionally unfortunate run through the palaeoart years. It is of course most well-known for once being thought to have a strangely protruding crest that often got restored – particularly by toymakers – in a curiously phallic way. Dinosaurs! Magazine turned it into a flat-nosed hadrosaur, until modern boring competent science gave it a much more normal Corythosaurus-like crest. But, did you know that it once had a Teddy Boy phase? I certainly didn’t. Here it is in its awkward sixties days, its comb straight up like it’s half of Jedward. Delinquent pompadour cuts were hopelessly out of style in the peace-and-love sixties, of course, but I respect a dinosaur that doesn’t bend to trends. You do you, Tsintaosaurus.
Here’s another dinosaur we didn’t see much of before the Rennaissance. This is what Psittacosaurus looked like before Bob Nicholls made it cool. It has been placed among the ornithopods, which I suppose makes a Linnaean kind of sense. Sibal has given them hilariously grouchy faces. They aren’t too dated; the head is probably too small and the animal too bottom-heavy; the legs of the one in the back look oddly humanoid. Here’s my bigger problem: I find it hard to trust Joseph Sibal. The reson for this: I take it to be entirely probable that there exists some Neave Parker illustration somewhere that I haven’t seen, that Sibal based these on.
Just like the hadrosaurus, the ceratopsids are well-represented, with a lot of genera on display that you wouldn’t find in many other books at the time (by contrast, there is only one stegosaur). Monoclonius was of course quite famous for having been illustrated by Knight. This version is not based on Knight, but I see some shared DNA between this one and the one by W. Francis Philips. Interesting is the rhino-like wrinkle on the snout, something shared by the Philips version and quite common to see in ceratopsian reconstructions (but otherwise absent from the ones in this book). Even today, there tends to be a little rinoceros in most ceratopsians you see; it’s just so hard to avoid.
Styracosaurus is a reassuring presence; Sibal copied it from Burian, just like everybody else did, and it’s highly recognizable as such. The one in the background, though, is from a Parker; the very same one that Sibal reproduced for the T. rex illustration on a different page!
It’s good to be reminded that when this book came out, Burian himself was still very much alive and working. Burian’s well-known (and wonderful) take on Chasmosaurus – after Bakker – hails from 1976, well after this was completed. So what’s this based on? Neave Parker, yet again. It’s from a lesser known piece that also depicts Pachyrhinosaurus, also duly reproduced in this book. Sibal’s version is rounder than Parker’s, and actually retains some of the interesting knobbly skin texture Parker gave it. What is missing is that sense of heft and mass that I did see with Sibal’s theropods and sauropods. The front legs look flimsy.
Anchiceratops is one of those half-forgotten ceratopsians that I always like to see. It’s actually not super-rare; it shows up in the Normanpedia, Dinosaurs! Magazine and The Great Dinosaurs, but it must have been incredibly rare before the eighties! I find it very hard to imagine there was another Anchiceratops illustration for Sibal to base his on (feel free to correct me in the comments) and given that, Sibal did a good job here. This one holds up pretty well (at least, the adult does).
There’s more to The Strange World of Dinosaurs – much more – but it’s mostly more of the same. But there’s also a surprising amount of illustrations of non-dinosaur prehistoric reptiles to go around, so if you’re interested in that, I’ll give it one more go after this. I’ll save my ultimate verdict on the palaeoart of Joseph Sibal until then. See you next time!